Garret Ogata has been teaching U.S. History at Mililani Middle School for 20 years, and for just as long, he has been an avid scholar of the U.S. Civil War. His passion for the Civil War led him to become a collector of more than just memorabilia from the era; he has collected battlefield artifacts, photographs, books and more from America’s bloodiest domestic conflict. As he delved into the war, he began to find the moral struggle over slavery and its relationship with this divisive conflict to be a most compelling topic to immerse himself in.
Inside a large closet within a modest Central O‘ahu home lives what is arguably Hawai‘i’s most extensive Civil War era collection. Ogata explained that many artifacts are items that were left on the battlefield such as unexploded ordinance and cannon balls, sabers, pistols, bullets, breastplates and cracked mortars, to be
found scores of decades later. Shelves along one wall sag under the weight of hundreds of books dedicated to the war, while another holds cannon balls and pieces of artillery collectively weighing hundreds of pounds. One large cannon ball in his collection weighs over 100 pounds, on its own. On overhead shelves sit ancient revolvers and rifles of various sizes, some wear the patina of rust and look their age, while others look relatively unscathed by time, like they might still be usable today. Amongst the notable pieces in the collection is a rare Spencer rifle, a gun that changed the Union army because it was a repeating rifle and multiple rounds could be loaded at a time, compared to the “single shot” muskets that were more typical, and took much longer between shots.
Of his collection, Ogata shares “These were mostly all dug up from battlefields, and there are still more out there to this day.” But some relics were never dropped and buried by time on the battlefield; Ogata has also collected dozens of framed photos of the soldiers. “They’re one of a kind,” Ogata says, noting that they are printed on glass plates. “The photos was captured on a piece of glass.” The early photographs predated the invention of film and negatives, so the images were captured directly on glass plates. “The soldiers sat for these pictures as keep- sakes, and at some point in time, nobody wanted it any more, so it’s been passed around, saved and cherished by us collectors all these years.” Some soldiers posed alone, while others sat with wives and their children. Other pictures, made using another early photographic process using albumen (essentially part of the egg), look like vintage baseball cards. Soldiers signed multiple copies of them, giving them to family and fellow soldiers.
His collection also includes lots of paper documents like letters, memos and death notices. “It points to the human cost of the war,” he says. One letter from Union soldier William H. Braughton to his father bore witness to the end of the war. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered, and Braughton’s letter to his father was written on April 10 at the Appomattox Courthouse. It read: “Yesterday was the proudest day of my life. I can hardly realize that after four years of hard fighting in which it has been, to use the slang phrase, ‘Six of one and half a dozen of another,’ we have in less than two weeks annihilated the veteran army of Robert E. Lee.” The phrase meant that both sides had been equally involved in the war.
He also has personal letters and official military correspondence. “I like looking at the war from the soldiers’ perspectives,” he says. In one letter, a soldier writes to his family that he has a case of diarrhea but he is being taken care of and there is nothing to worry about. In another letter to his family written a few days later, his commanding officer informed them that it had killed him. In another letter, a soldier was discharged after his left forearm was amputated. A separate enlistment paper shows that he was a school teacher prior to the war. Some of the letters show cursive penmanship elegantly rendered, an art that seems more and more lost in today’s world. But enlistment papers also show that some who served were illiterate, only able to sign their name with an “X” on the line by their names.
Ogata has always had an interest in history (hence his day job), and he started collecting Civil War items once he learned they could be purchased. He started with buttons 20 years ago and now that has grown to hundreds of items. To avoid fraud when adding to his collection, Ogata mostly purchases directly from known diggers and memorabilia dealers, which he says is a small community. “A lot of times it’s just keep- ing your ear to the ground and listening and seeing who has what, and who is willing to sell,” Ogata says. “A lot of stuff is still being dug up today.”
Some have reached out to him when they find something of interest. A digger once asked if he wanted a found cannon ball, but it measured more than 15 inches in diameter and weighed more than 300 pounds. The firearms and artillery that collectors typically have are from the Union Army. Confederate artifacts are more expensive because fewer were made, and their rarity comes with commensurate prices. He does, however, own Confederate money and war bonds, which were instantly worthless to its original holders at the war’s end.
Ogata has also been drawn by the abolitionist angle of the Civil War. He owns copies of The Liberator, a newspaper published by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. It called for immediate abolition, and Garrison printed his newspaper at a loss for 35 years until the end of the war.
Ogata has taught history for the past 27 years, 20 of them at Mililani Middle School. He likes to bring in the memorabilia and artifacts to class, but he can no longer bring the relic firearms to school because of a new policy related to mass shootings. Students do appreciate seeing the items and it helps them undersatnd the era by seeing tangible evidence of the war.
Ogata is also the steward of his ancestors’ military history. His great-uncle fought and died in World War II for the famed 442nd Regiment, and other relatives also have served. When he turned 18, he dutifully picked up enlistment papers but his father says he would pay for his education because wars had already taken a cost from the Ogata family. So Garret Ogata studied history, and now teaches it to others as his way of honoring the legacies of the fallen, and the veterans who survived.